The man Donald Trump likes to call “Rocket Man” is angry. His feelings are hurt and he is striking back. He has threatened to start calling our President “Dotard” again. Aw gee. (The word “dotard” refers to someone who is in his dotage or second childhood, whose intellect is impaired by age.)

Name-calling is what we used to do in the playground, when we were children. And if that were all that this is about, we wouldn’t have much to worry about.

Only it isn’t. 

The leader of the Hermit Kingdom is both childish and unpredictable. If he doesn’t get his way, he stamps his foot and has a tantrum. Only sometimes when he has a tantrum, people die, or they are sent off to slave labor camps.

His anger usually translates into misery for the people around him, his perceived enemies at home. Or his anger could turn into the potential for the deployment of nuclear-laden missiles against his perceived enemies overseas. And his finger is on the button. 

He has already shown that he means business. On November 28, North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles from what it calls its “super-large” multiple rocket launcher. Although there is not yet enough detailed information available about these weapons, they may well be the MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) that North Korea and Iran have been collaborating on for at least seven years, since Iran began moving much of its nuclear weapons research to Kim’s kingdom at the end of 2012. 

North Korea has had two earlier tests, one in August and one in September, of what appears to be the same system, possibly mounted on different types of missiles. According to a BBC report, North Korea “has managed to develop three new missile systems, all of which have been tested since talks between Mr. Trump and the North Korean leader broke down in Hanoi in February.” 

In any case, the November 28th launch was the third test of this multiple warhead. South Korean sources said that both missiles in this test flew about 205 miles eastward, and ascended to a maximum altitude of 30-40 miles, before landing into the Sea of Japan.

All of these systems are built on solid fuel engines. They are fast, low-flying missiles, and at least one of them can maneuver in-flight. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Pyongyang has carried out 19 test launches this year alone. 

But there have been several bits of news coming out of Pyongyang just this weekend that we should be paying attention to. The first of these is the announcement by North Korea that it had carried out a “very important” test at its rocket testing facility at Sohae on Saturday, December 7. 

This base is located among hills in the North Pyongan Province, close to the northern border with China. Kim had promised to destroy it, following earlier talks with the U.S. and they appeared to do that, but then apparently it has been rebuilt.  

Although the official state media, KCNA, reported that Saturday’s test was a “successful test of great significance”, it did not specify what was tested. They said only, “The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future”.

But experts have speculated that it may have been a static test of a new rocket engine, rather than a missile launch, which could be more easily detected by neighboring South Korea and Japan. South Korea and the United States are reportedly closely monitoring activities at major sites, including Sohae.

Also on Saturday, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said that the topic of denuclearization has “already gone out of the negotiation table” and that renewed talks with the U.S. “are not needed”. At first, Kim hinted that unless the U.S./North Korean talks are resumed before the end of the year, he will begin long-range tests after the new year begins. Now those conditions seem to have changed – again. Talks “are not needed” anymore.

And that is the way Kim operates – and why he is so dangerous. 

These two events are significant and seem to indicate an important change in how Kim views his country’s strategic military and nuclear position.

North Korea now talks of resuming missile tests and warns that it could take a “new path”. His latest thrust, instead of insisting on renewed talks, is to warn the U.S. of a “Christmas Surprise” if we don’t change our position on sanctions and the nuclear issue before the end of the year. No talks, just capitulation by the U.S. to the demands of Kim Jong Un.

Kim’s Deputy Foreign Minister has suggested that North Korea could resume testing long-range missiles within the next few weeks if the U.S. doesn’t change its position, saying “it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select”. 

So Kim is getting impatient and feeling powerful, and his end-of-the-year deadline for the resumption of talks with the U.S. seems to be gone. He is taking a hard stand on his new position and he is not used to being denied anything. KCNA reported that the latest test proved that Kim’s government in Pyongyang could launch a surprise attack and “totally destroy” enemy targets by using what they called North Korea’s “continuous fire system”. 

Underscoring his latest intent, Kim has also called for the convening of a meeting of his most powerful political leaders for later this month. According to the reports, they will convene to “discuss and decide on critical issues”.

Why has Kim changed his mind on compromise with the U.S.? 

Three of the most likely answers to this question are that: 

1. Kim’s feelings have been hurt because Trump will not remove the sanctions without an unequivocal guarantee by Kim to end his nuclear program, and this is his way of showing his anger and his personal power; 

2. That he is undoubtedly getting pressure from China, whose trade talks with the U.S. hang in the balance over a host of issues; from Russia, who also has a stake in this controversy; and from Iran, North Korea’s partner in its nuclear development program, whose own domestic problems are threatening to eclipse its aggressive posture against Israel, the United States, and the West. 

3. Kim’s position seems to have been reinforced by his allies, and he no longer thinks he is dependent on a favorable outcome from talks with the U.S. 

Kim has a lot on his plate, and he is no doubt overwhelmed by the pressures being exerted by a host of perceived friends and foes alike. His knee jerk response is to adopt an offensive posture with threats, missile tests, and symbolic photographs of himself in the press.

North Korea’s Kim in new horse ride through winter snows

In a dramatic photo-op, Kim is seen symbolically ploughing through deep snow on the back of a large white horse, to the summit of North Korea’s sacred Mt. Paektu. During this heavily photographed ride, he told the North Korean people: 

“The imperialists and class enemies make a more frantic attempt to undermine the ideological, revolutionary, and class positions of our Party”. He added that he was getting his people ready for “the harshness and protracted character of our revolution”.  

The people of North Korea were being warned about further hardships in their lives in the very near future. Hardship is nothing new to the people of North Korea, who have faced lifetimes of harsh oppression, poverty, and starvation – imposed by their own government. This new threat – at the beginning of winter – must be terrifying to Kim’s own people. Kim, who looks well-fed and warmly clothed, probably doesn’t care too much. 

So what do we have to look forward to with North Korea? And what does President Trump need to do to avert what looks like a renewed threat of nuclear war?  

The strict international sanctions against North Korea remain in place and President Trump doesn’t show any signs of giving in to Kim’s threats. He has even given Kim a veiled threat of his own, referring recently to some kind of military action in response to Kim’s ‘warnings’. But at the moment the situation seems at a stalemate. 

However, two of our close allies lie directly in harm’s way. If Kim should decide to unleash his missiles on either Japan or South Korea, or both, America’s position could change dramatically. Kim has also warned that his missiles have the capability of reaching the U.S. as well. So the situation is unpredictable at best, because the leader of North Korea is erratic, irrational, and dangerous. 

If the status quo continues, then the possibility of the U.S. launching a military strike against North Korea in the face of Kim’s threats is, I think, unlikely. There are too many other, less dangerous options. But should Kim decide to unleash his missiles toward the U.S. or any of our allies, then all bets are off. 

The time for talking to Kim is now. What is unknown is whether or not Kim will still agree to such talks, and whether anything positive can come out of the effort. Given the complications facing the President at home, in China, and in the Middle East, the potential for a major breakthrough is a big unknown. The world sits poised at a significant crossroad, with many signs pointing in all all directions. There are many conflict zones, each of them threatening to erupt at any moment, and all of them pose a threat to the free world. 

Kim’s threats are worrisome and need to be taken seriously. He is far too unpredictable for us to depend on his doing the right thing under pressure. And if he decides to do the unthinkable as a centerpiece for his “new path”, our President must then do whatever is necessary to maintain both stability in the region and security at home.

Image: AP, AFP